NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The country's largest casino stocks have crapped out over the past 16 months, with Wynn Resorts (WYNN) - Get Report, Las Vegas Sands (LVS) - Get Report, and MGM Resorts International (MGM) - Get Report taking huge hits largely due to their exposure to the battered Macau market.
But industry experts and analysts believe the beaten-down stocks may have bottomed, and that it might be time to slowly start putting investment chips back on the table.
"Wynn Resorts is one of our top investment ideas -- it's currently on our 'best ideas' list," said Dan Wasiolek, a senior analyst at Morningstar. "There's too much negativity priced into the stock."
Wynn has taken the biggest drubbing, with its shares losing 51% of their value over the past 52 weeks, although they rose 8% Thursday on some positive news. The shares, which peaked at $249.31 in March 2014, hit a low of $93.59 this past June. Shares are currently at $104.75.
Las Vegas Sands' shares fell 44% to a low of $49.57 from a high of $88.05 in March 2014, and MGM's shares tumbled 42% to a low of $16.84 from a high of $28.56 in the same period.
Macau has been the main culprit. The Chinese gambling mecca, which boasts the world's largest casino market, had been a boon for the three companies following the 2008 recession. Their Macau casinos raked in big bucks from high rollers and other gamblers who flocked to the hotspot, which was China's only legal gambling market.
But all of that changed last year when a series of events shook up the Macau market, causing gaming revenue to nosedive. The Chinese government launched an aggressive anti-corruption campaign, which frightened off high rollers, disrupted the popular junket system, and pulled in the reins on overly-aggressive lending. The result? A sharp dropoff in VIP gambling revenue.
The government also brought in tighter visa restrictions for mainland Chinese residents and new smoking restrictions at casinos -- all of which choked off traffic to the glitzy gaming venues.
Macau gambling revenue plunged for the 13th straight month in June, tumbling 36% from a year earlier, according to government data released this week.
Also, the strong U.S. dollar, the weak Chinese economy and the volatile Chinese stock market have caused a drop-off in Chinese gamblers to Las Vegas, noted Chris Jones, a senior analyst at Union Gaming Research.
However, much of the Macau turmoil is already reflected in the pummeled casino stocks. Experts see signs of stabilization in Macau, which strengthens their belief that the stocks will go up from here. "I think they've probably hit a bottom," said Clyde Barrow, a casino expert and professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. "People expect Macau to start growing next year."
The Chinese government recently started to ease visa restrictions and softened its smoking ban rules by allowing smoking lounges, which is expected to help bring visitors back.
"This is really the first positive indicator that the government might look to stabilize the declines that we've seen in the market," said Wasiolek. "We believe the government has an interest in maintaining economic and social stability in Macau for its citizens."
Despite the current troubles, "We believe the region is set up for strong positive intermediate and long-term growth," he said.
On the Las Vegas side of the business, the U.S. economic rebound has helped business to perk up. But Las Vegas is a much smaller and more mature market, with only single digit growth, said Wasiolek.
"Macau is over a $20 billion a year gaming market and Vegas is about $11 billion," said Barrow. "So a lot of these companies, like Las Vegas Sands, get 70% of their business in Macau."
Union Gaming's Jones says he's noticed "more stability in the last several weeks in Macau gaming trends." Also, he said concerns about margin declines have not materialized in the second quarter as many feared.
While experts are not expecting a huge sudden rebound in industry trends, they see the beaten-down stocks as a buying opportunity for those interested in medium- and longer-term growth. They don't expect the stocks to plunge further as they did in the 2008 recession, when Wynn fell to a low of $14.50, Las Vegas Sands slid to $2.13 and MGM bottomed at $1.81 a share.
"We don't believe there's another leg down in these names," said Jones.
During the recession, much of the price annihilation was related to the companies' weak balance sheets, heavy leverage and risk of default. "MGM was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy at the bottom of the recession but have come out of it," said Barrow.
Today, most of the large casino companies have healthy balance sheets and are "less levered," said Jones.
Jones has a 12-month price target on Wynn of $140, while Wasiolek is more bullish at $152. Jones' target on Las Vegas Sands is $65 while Wasiolek is at $62. Jones has a $26 price target on MGM.
Wynn's shares closed at $104.12 Thursday, up $8.03 or 8.4%, as investors seemed to respond to comments the company's chief executive Steve Wynn made during an earnings conference call.
During the conference call, Wynn remained cautiously bullish on Macau and said he was thankful for the Chinese government's decision to ease visa restrictions and loosen the smoking ban. "We have a continuing dialogue with the government because their major interest is to protect the security of the jobs of the people in the city, to keep harmony, tranquility and even a positive attitude among the citizens."
He also said the company remains on track to open its Wynn Palace Resort on the Cotai strip in 2016.
Las Vegas Sands' shares are currently at $56.54 after closing Thursday at $56.01. MGM's shares are unchanged from Thursday's close of $19.65.
"Picking an exact bottom is challenging, especially when there's no visible catalyst for timing the improvement," said Wasiolek. "But there are valuation calls supported by positive medium- and long-term views."
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.